Potiphar's Wife: the world she lived in

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Statue of an Egyptian man

Joseph of Egypt: his story
The story of Joseph: you can't keep a good man down

Claudette Colbert in a milk bath in the movie 'Cleopatra'

Bible Bad Women
Potiphar's wife as on eof the Bad Women of the Bible

Chains binding two hands together

Slaves in the Bible
Slavery in the Bible, with a case study of Joseph

Bracelet belonging to Queen Ahhotep, 18th dynasty of Egypt

Bible Archaeology: Jewelry
Egyptian Jewelry

 


 


Scene from 'The Pursuit of Happyness'

Bible study activities
has a list of  films about people like Joseph, who fight back against adverse circumstances

 


Paintings of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Guido Reni


 




 

 


 

 


Bad Women of the Bible

Photograph of Brad Pitt

'Potiphar had a beautiful wife, a woman used to getting her own way. She was lonely, bored and thrown into the company of an unusually handsome man, a Brad Pitt of the ancient world.'  

Read more...

  The Egyptian wife of Potiphar


Hammurabi's Laws about women

The laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, drawn up several centuries before this story, show attitudes towards women at the time. There were laws to

  • protect the rights of women in marriage

  • protect women against rape

  • define the punishment for adultery

  • define the just treatment of women who were slaves

  • regulate the behavior of sacred women who served in the temples

  • lay down conditions for divorce, etc.

It was probably in this period that women enjoyed greatest freedom and prestige. The stories in Genesis and Exodus show them as independent and strong, smart and tough. They displayed leadership and initiative. They almost always got their way when they wanted something.

Egyptian jewelry with the head of the god Horus

 Egyptian jewellery

Egyptian love songs

The love poems and lullabies of this period are another source of information. Some of the material in the Song of Songs may have been drawn from Egyptian love songs, and there was certainly cross-fertilization between these two sources. Potiphar's wife would have known, and been influenced by, the rich sensuality of these songs, which describe the joys, pain, desire, confusion and hope of young love - or old, for that matter. 

The song-poems capture the essence of private and personal feelings. They are about sexual, not romantic love. People in the ancient world were more comfortable with their sexuality than later Western civilization See the influence of Platonic dualism in 'Ideas About Women at That Time' in any of the chapters about New Testament women on this website, for example at 'The woman taken in adultery'

Some examples of Egyptian love-songs follow:

BIBLE WOMEN: POTIPHAR'S WIFE: EGYPTIAN WOMAN'S PROFILE

A young man to his beloved:
     Behold her... shining, precious, white of skin, lovely of eyes when gazing
     Long of neck, white of breast, her hair true lapis lazuli
     Her arms surpass gold, her fingers like lotuses
     Rounded her bottom, narrow her waist, her thighs carry her beauty
     Lovely her walk when she strides on the ground, she has captured my heart
     She makes the head of all men turn when they see her
     Lucky the one who embraces her....

     
Don't have people say 'This woman has gone to pieces with love'
     Be firm when you think of him, be still my heart

A young woman tells her lover to hurry as he comes to her:
     If only you would come swiftly, like a gazelle bounding over the desert
     Racing because there is fear in your heart
     A hunting dog pursues you but can't even see your dust
     Before you can kiss your hand four times you arrive safely at my cave
     he Golden One
(Hathor, goddess of love) has decreed that we be together

Some of the poems are quite explicit; a young woman describes the reward awaiting a lover:
     When you bring it to her and push it into her cave/opening
     Her gate will be opened, and she, the lady of the house, will demolish it
     Give her song and dance, and wine and beer
     So that you intoxicate her senses and complete her in the night
     And she'll say 'Embrace me, and stay with me until dawn'.

A young man describes how helpless he is in the toils of love:
     How skilful she is at casting the lasso, though it's not cattle she draws in
     With her hair she lassos me, with her eyes she pulls me in
     With her thighs she binds me to her, with her seal she brands me as her own.

(Poems adapted from material in 'The Song of Songs and the ancient Egyptian love songs', Michael V. Fox, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985)

 

Migration and settlement in Egypt

Tents of nomadic herders
Reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian villa; Potiphar's wife may have lived in a similar house

Above: nomadic tents; 
Below: reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian villa

The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is set in the very early period of Jewish history, at a time when the Hebrews were a nomadic people.

At first they travelled in small, mobile clans following their flocks wherever pasture was best. They moved into territory already occupied by people called the Canaanites, a relatively advanced group who lived a settled life in city-states and had an economy based on agriculture and trade. 
For a comparison of the living conditions of nomads and settled townspeople, see examples of ancient housing at Bible Architecture, Houses 

As they prospered, the settler groups grew larger and began to split into offshoot clans. Eventually, following a famine in Canaan, a large number migrated to Egypt, where they became workers on the state projects of the Pharaohs.

Even though they were living in the sophisticated cultural atmosphere of Egypt, these people held on to their own separate identity as Hebrews. The focus of their difference was worship of Jahweh, a deity who combined the power of all the gods of other tribes, but had a special relationship with them.

Because of its power and its proximity, Egypt has been a strong presence in the biblical history of Israel.

Young women entertainers at an Egyptian banquet, from a tomb painting

Young women at a banquet, 
Tomb of Nakht, mid-15th century BC

For additional information on the lives of women in the Bible, see the links to 

Family, work and religion: the tribe, the family, slaves, women's tasks, beliefs

Milestones in a woman's life: Puberty, menstruation, marriage, childbirth, death, burials

Clothing and housing : ancient fabric, weaving, different styles for rich and poor

 

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Ancient Egyptian women, wall painting

'While they may have been publicly and socially viewed as inferior to men, Egyptian 
women enjoyed a great deal of legal and financial independence. They could buy 
and sell property, serve on juries, make wills and even enter into legal contracts. 
Egyptian women did not typically work outside the home, but those who did usually 
received equal pay for doing the same jobs as men. Unlike the women of ancient 
Greece, who were effectively owned by their husbands, Egyptian women also had 
the right to divorce and remarry. Egyptian couples were even known to negotiate an 
ancient prenuptial agreement. These contracts listed all the property and wealth the 
woman had brought into the marriage and guaranteed that she would be 
compensated for it in the event of a divorce.' 
Image and quote from History Lists: 11 things you may not know about ancient Egypt

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher